Brow Beat

TV’s New Ambition Problem

Hell on Wheels.

Ted Levine and Anson Mount in a still from ‘Hell on Wheels’.

Photo by Chris Large - ©AMC 2010

Back in September, Emily Nussbaum—who has just written her first column as The New Yorker’s new TV critic—wrote a piece about Boardwalk Empire for New York Magazine in which she identified “a troubling trend of shows throughout cable television … designed to take advantage of a modern audience that knows TV transcendence is possible.” After The Sopranos and The Wire and Mad Men et al., Nussbaum argued, many viewers are inclinded to be patient with shows that, like Boardwalk Empire, have all the hallmarks of greatness: high production values, big names (both behind and in front of the camera), grand social and historical themes. And yet such a show, no matter how pretty the costumes, can be just as “empty” as the most small-bore network procedural.

After a weekend catching up with Boss and Hell on Wheels—both of which premiered well after Nussbaum’s column was published—I feel pretty sure she was on to something. Both shows wear their ambitions on their proverbial sleeves, as Slate’s Troy Patterson pointed out when reviewing the two series. Boss is about a fictional mayor of Chicago—nay, it is about Chicago itself—nay, it is about America. Hell on Wheels, meanwhile, is about the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad—nay it is… Well, you know where that’s going.

Neither show is “empty.” In fact, both have a fair amount to recommend them. I loved the Boss pilot, and the performances in that show are excellent. The acting in Hell on Wheels is hit or miss, but the story is pulling me in. (I also love the music by Gustavo Santaolalla; the man knows how to score a Western.)

Still, both are weakened by their egregious grasping after importance. Boss not only wants to be like The Wire, it wants to be like all five seasons of The Wire at once. It even has—already!—a pompously heroic journalist to go along with the mayor, the governor, a young politician on the rise, a drug dealer, some construction workers, and a subplot involving the school system. Hell on Wheels, meanwhile, is taking on the aftermath of slavery, the eradication of the Indians, the corruption of the U.S. government, and the progress of the Industrial Revolution.

It’s not that TV shows should give up on big ambitions. But The Sopranos started out with a mobster in New Jersey who was depressed because some ducks left his swimming pool. The Wire was initially about a minor murder trial in Baltimore. I exaggerate a little, of course—The Wire did have a character say “This America, man” in its very first scene—but both shows really did begin by presenting relatively small worlds that grew over time, taking on additional cultural resonance as they expanded.

Is it coincidental that the best cable drama to premiere after The Wire and The Sopranos (more or less: it actually overlapped with the former for a few months) also started small, with a high school chemistry teacher and a cancer diagnosis? Breaking Bad is certainly an ambitious show—but not in the obvious ways. It’s not a sprawling period piece with characters who make polysyllabic pronouncements about the nature of American society. The ambition is conceptual: As the show’s talented creator, Vince Gilligan, has said many times, he wanted to create a charater who was good when the series began, then gradually became evil, in order to see how far he could bend the audience’s sympathies before they finally broke. (Which, not incidentally, was the perfect thought experiment for cable television right after Tony Soprano and Stringer Bell had departed the scene.)

The next big cable-drama premiere is Luck, which airs on HBO December 11. Created by David Milch (of Deadwood and NYPD Blue fame), the show stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte; Michael Mann directed the pilot. The trailer, below, looks great. But I sincerely hope that the show, at least at first, is about a man who likes to bet a little money—all right, probably a lot of money—on the horses, and not about, say, the cruel, unforgiving cycle of success and failure in late-capitalist America. Given the title—and that daunting roster of talent—I have my doubts.